My school’s engagement with the media all started with Jamie Oliver. I had only been in post as headteacher at Charlton Manor Primary School for a year when the TV chef launched his 2005 “school dinners” campaign, which aimed to improve the nutritional value of school lunches.
Although a nearby secondary school, Kidbrooke School, was the focus of the resulting Channel 4 documentary, the “school dinners” initiative was open to all schools in Greenwich, south-east London.
Along with other heads in the area, I signed up. We were provided with a chef from Jamie’s team, and our own school chef attended a “boot camp” where he learned to cook healthy school dinners from scratch.
At the time, I wasn’t considering the benefits of being involved in a campaign with such a high media profile. I was simply thinking of the vision I had entered headship with: to provide opportunities for children that they would not ordinarily have. But all the time, as the cameras were rolling at Kidbrooke, Charlton Manor could be seen in the background. Suddenly, people were taking notice of us, and the atmosphere in our school changed for the better.
For the first time, I realised the power of the media and how helpful it can be in raising issues and mobilising action. From then on, I resolved to take a more proactive approach towards engaging with the media and I have since actively sought opportunities to connect with the press, to the continuing benefit of our school community. This is something that your school can benefit from, too. And here’s how to do it.
1. Start local
Local newspapers are your best friends when it comes to engaging with the media. They are easy to reach out to and are usually very willing to cover school stories. I frequently use local papers to publicise what our school is doing. A good tip to ensure coverage is to invite a newsworthy figure to the launch of a new initiative or the opening of a new area of the school. For example, I invited our local MP to open our school garden and the mayor to listen to presentations from children about beekeeping when I introduced bee hives to the school in 2008.
2. Seize opportunities that come your way
Local coverage will act as a gateway to opportunities further afield. In this age of the internet, I have found that “local” really means almost anywhere in the world. And once our story was out there, interest in our approach to teaching started to come from everywhere. For example, I was invited to join a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs taskforce looking at encouraging more schools to grow food. The department contacted me after seeing an online local newspaper article.
Great opportunities to engage with the media can come from any direction, so be on the lookout for them. We were lucky that Jamie Oliver happened to be filming a documentary in our area, but taking that initial opportunity when it presented itself was an important step.
3. Be open to international connections
After I introduced bees to the school, and the story was covered by local press, we were contacted by many other schools that were interested in keeping bees. These schools were not only in the UK, but also Australia and the US. Two authors contacted the school and so we now feature in beekeeping books. Off the back of this, a school in Germany that also kept bees contacted us and for the past seven years we have been participating in yearly exchange visits with this school, something that has really helped our teaching of MFL.
4. Engage a celebrity champion
By ensuring that we continue to reach out, I have found that the media often approach us when they are running stories around growing food, healthy eating and childhood obesity. Being open to requests for comment has helped us to make contact with big names who are also involved in these areas, including the chef Raymond Blanc, who has become a real supporter of the school. He has helped us a great deal with conferences that we lead. Another great supporter is radio presenter Dave Berry, who has come along to the school on many occasions to work with our children.
Engaging celebrities has helped us to keep momentum and has led to further coverage and opportunities. But none of this would have been possible without our efforts to maintain our media profile and willingness to offer comment when it is requested.
I know that there are often negative stories in the press about individual schools and that this can make some headteachers wary of engaging with the media. But, with a proactive approach, I believe that the press can be an invaluable tool to support your school’s ambitions and ethos.
Tim Baker is headteacher of Charlton Manor Primary School in south-east London